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A winelands tour in Heaven and Earth

One of my earliest memories is the smell of must, freshly pressed grape juice that contains the skins, seeds and stems of the fruit.

It’s a by-product of the wine-making process – the step before juice turns into wine – and the fragrance enveloped the town where I grew up, Worcester, in a heady, fermented, slightly decadent smell. My mother used it to make moskonfyt, a sinfully delicious grape jam.

As I grew older, I progressed from moskonfyt to Montagu Muscadel, the sweet liquor that is traditionally served as communion wine in the Dutch Reformed Church. I was born with a sweet tooth and I've never outgrown it, but eventually I fell in love with white wine, then red wine, and always – always – champagne.

Wine barrels at Bouchard Finlayson

It doesn't matter where my restless feet take me, it doesn't matter where I settle down be it temporarily or permanently, I have wine in my veins, and I'll forever be a child of the blue granite mountains of the Boland ("Upper Country"). Du Toitskloof, Slanghoek, Klein Drakenstein, Elandskloof, Chavonness, Brandwacht, Fonteintjiesberg, Keeromberg, Langeberg … the names of the mountains that surround my birthplace.

If you're wondering why I've gone on this trip down memory lane, it's two-fold:
  •  Recently two Google+ friends, Du and Massimo, asked me about South African wine.
  • It so happens that I visited South Africa exactly a year ago. February is summer in South Africa, and I'm reminiscing about vineyards shimmering in 40 degrees in an attempt to survive Tokyo's record snowfalls. We've already had two weekends of snow, the latter the heaviest in 45 years, and more is predicted for this coming week.
When I was home – home-home – last year, I asked both my niece and my friend WHK to take me on wine tours. Want to come with me?

My first trip was with my niece and her wine connoisseur husband to wineries near HermanusOur wine tour started at Raka, a family-owned winery that's halfway between Stanford and Napier … and in those two names you can read South Africa's rich British heritage.

Wine barrel decorations at Raka

Raka's tasting room

Steel tanks at Raka

Wine tasting

We continued through the Overberg, which is a wheat-growing area, and then finally Hemel en Aarde (Heaven and Earth), a valley which is part of the Hermanus Wine Route. It's one of the newer wine regions in the Western Cape, but it's achieved international recognition thanks to Bouchard Finlayson and Hamilton Russell, two wineries that are raking in awards. I've provided links to their websites and I'll let my photos do the talking, but just a quick note on the region's terroir: Hemel en Aarde has a Mediterranean climate, like the rest of the Western Cape, but it enjoys the strongest maritime influence of any winegrowing area in South Africa, in other words, it's cooled by close proximity to the cold Atlantic Ocean rather than latitude. South Africa doesn't stretch far enough south to reach classic European winegrowing latitudes. The analogous winegrowing region in North America would be the Santa Barbara area.


Hemel en Aarde, seen from Hermanus

Blue mountains, green vineyards, white church ... my childhood

The contrast between the golden wheat farms and the green vineyards is startling and very beautiful. Along the way we stopped at a cheese shop, for what is wine without cheese? It's on a farm with goats and horses and bergskilpaaie (literally mountain tortoise, official English name leopard tortoise, Latin name Geochelone pardalis).


Gravel roads do get repaired. Sometimes.


I love goats. 

Mischief personified!


Dutch heritage

Oh, good heavens, affordable yet good wine, and affordable yet delicious cheese. I would sell my soul for both, for woman cannot live on rice alone. (What am I doing in Japan?)

Wine, cheese, sun. Hot sunlight and a blinding blue sky that disappear as you step into a dark, cool, spiderwebby wine cellar that smells of dust, mysteries and centuries. The brick walls are a meter thick, the oak casks are silent and fragrant, there is no sound except the sighs of angels.

Angels? Yes, there is an old cellar legend about the small amount of alcohol that evaporates through the porous oak: it's the angels' share.

It is a wonderful experience to stand in a cellar steeped in time, staring at the blue mountains and green vineyards, sipping a glass of South Africa's best in the company of friends and family. You are, at that moment, part of history and inextricably woven into your own unique culture.

It’s a good feeling.

Bouchard Finlayson, above and below

How to get there

You need a car. If you look at a map, go through/past Hermanus, take the R326, turn left into the R316, go through Caledon, turn south and follow the R320. The latter eventually joins the R43 that runs through Hermanus. Be warned that you'll be traveling on gravel roads. Oy, this is Africa! 

Here's a map that indicates Bouchard Finlayson on the R320.


1) Must is the juice of freshly pressed grapes, prior to fermentation into wine. Must contains various quantities of pulp, skins, stems, and seeds, called pomace or grape solids, which typically comprise between 7–23 percent of the total weight of the must. These components, and the time they are allowed to be in contact with the juice, are critical to the final character of the wine.  Wikipedia

2) The winery Raka is named after the best epic poem written in Afrikaans, Raka by N.P. van Wyk Louw. I couldn't find an English translation on the internet and I have neither the time nor the skill to attempt a translation myself. You can read an Afrikaans excerpt as well as an Afrikaans/Dutch discussion here, and a full academic dissertation here.


The first part of this winelands story was written a year ago (link). You've never doubted that I function on Africa time rather than JR East time, have you? This second part is written for many people:

1) An old – oldest – winelands friend who shocked me a while ago when he said he still reads my blog
2) WHK, midnight companion and wine guide par excellence
3) Soul sister Helena
4) Massimo and Du, who want to learn more about South African wines
5) Bacchanal buddies Cecilia and Sarah
6) Beer and sake lovers Dru and J.A.
7) My twin in Belgium, Meg L
8) All Google+ contacts who love wine (Aussie Riesling Ben, I'm looking at you)
9) My mother, who used to love a sherry on a Sunday afternoon
10) My father, who gently yet controlfreakingly introduced me to wine a few decades ago

Vermont, a coastal town near Hermanus

My country is blue and bright and sunny.

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